To Marge, In Grateful Thanks

She was a retired high school chemistry teacher, a reader of Bonhoeffer, and someone whose later years were filled with enough wisdom and love to pray for the people who would harm and kill others rather than foster and bless them. She spoke and wrote with love and intelligence. For the past eight years, she blessed my life as a companion in study and prayer. Even when she moved hundreds of miles away a few years back, she remained in my heart.

Marge O’Brien was kind enough to share her thoughts with me in many conversations. She was also kind enough to do the same for anyone who read my yearly Advent Devotional. With grateful thanks, I share her words with you:

Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:13-19; Matthew 21:28-32

Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the field yields no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk 3:17-19

Habakkuk was a prophet in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. It was a time of great turmoil in Jerusalem and of many great injustices in the world. In many ways like in our own world, the question arises, “Where is God’s justice?” Why do the poor suffer while the powerful go unpunished for their misdeeds? Why do bad things happen to good people? Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. Is it up to us to criticize God? Or is it possible that there is something else going on?

Perhaps we have a role in bringing God’s kingdom into our world. Over and over again, in both the Old and New Testaments, we are reminded that our God wills a world of righteousness and justice, a world with compassion for the poor and the sick, a world of peace and love. Sometimes we are depressed by what we see in the events of our time. We feel helpless to make things better. Habakkuk foresaw great troubles coming to Jerusalem in the form of warring nations. He knew that times were going to be rough. “YET I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!”

There are times in our own lives when we feel helpless. We do not have control over what is happening. Jobs are lost. Relationships fail. Illness consumes us or someone we love. YET, in all of the sadness and violence, God is beside us, loving us, guiding us, helping us. As we look back on some of the dark times in our life, so often we see God at work picking up the pieces for us and helping us get through to a brighter side of the darkness.

And there is the answer: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, with us always. In the darkness or the light, as Julian of Nowich reminds us “All shall be well.”

Lord Jesus, let our minds rest in your Word, so that when doubt and grief would overwhelm us, faith will open our eyes to see your hand at work in our life and enable us to turn toward the future with hope and toward each other in perfect charity.” A Prayer from St. Augustine.

Offered on December 13, 2014, by Marge O’Brien, retired teacher now worshipping at St. David’s Episcopal ChurchIn North Chesterfield Virginia, steadfast pray-er, child of God.

Treadful Time?

The air is thinner, no longer able to wrap me in heat and humidity. Storms and shortening days have transformed the green canopy over my head into scatter rugs at my feet. It’s happened every year at the change of seasons, but this year something else is going on. For the first time, it feels like a change of life season.

I first walked these streets fifteen years ago, but the life I was living then has fallen away just as surely as the leaves at my feet. I walk this beloved world in a middle age that will soon transform me into an elder – God willing. I am a falling leaf, transformed by age and experience from green to…what?

Years ago, my son Colin’s third grade teacher asked him to answer this question: As a leaf on a tree in Autumn, would you want to fall first or last? Colin chose first, somersaulting and turning on his way to earth. It’s my turn to answer that question now – not just metaphorically, but tangibly. Will I hang on to the stage of life that has brought me so much, or will I let it go, willingly and gladly jumping into the next colorful and grand adventure?

Today, I choose to jump. Knowing that I will return to the earth, accepting a different perspective and place, I will let time take me where it will. Because I don’t think Time is an angry, muddy boot that grinds me into an unforgiving eternal pavement. I believe it’s a brisk wind, carrying me to my resting place when I cannot get there on my own. And if the foliage I see on this walk is any indication of life’s truth, it’s after the fall that my life is revealed in all its color.

To every thing there is a season…Ecclesiastes.

Over the Same Ground

Once a month, I cross Marion Road and enter Town Hall. Up a few steps and down the hall I go, arriving at the Clerk’s office to post the agenda for the library board meeting. If I need to file paperwork for a new member, I go up another set of stairs to the Selectmen’s office. Paperwork properly filed, I head back out the front doors and skip down the impressive but rarely used front steps. A right takes me back to town, a left toward Shaw’s market, an about face to the middle and high schools – at least three options every time I have business at Town Hall.

Sometimes, Town Hall comes to me – announcements, notifications, and emails. Last week, it was an email that marched into my computer, bringing with it an undeserved slap on the wrist delivered in words that were a slap in the face – a selectman complaining about the actions of the board I chair. In this case, the complaint as well as the insults were based on faulty information or his misreading of partial information. The three paragraph finger shaking was undeserved and certainly inappropriate as a means of communication between a selectman and a municipal board. It’s not the first combative communication and it’s not likely to be the last. This is well worn ground here in Wareham.

After a few minutes, I sent a reply asking to meet to discuss the issues. After several hours, I drafted a response, correcting misunderstanding and setting the record straight. It wasn’t quite as abrasive as what I had received, but there were a few sentences that weren’t exactly complimentary. With the help of other board members, I chose other words. If the selectman who sent the email doesn’t agree to a meeting, I will send it.

There are three possibilities every time I leave Town Hall. I don’t have to go the way I came. Regardless of what I encounter in Town Hall, I can choose another direction when I leave. I don’t have to go down the same road, trading confrontational and insulting language back and forth. I can choose neutral words, correcting misunderstanding and false information without bitterness. I don’t have to return like for like.

It’s not easy for me to return respect and patience for insult and accusation. But with the help of others, I’ll go in a different direction. With luck, patience, and prayer, perhaps the selectman who sent the email may just find it possible to do the same…

O Sing to the Lord a new song. Psalm 96:1

Storm Walk

A few years back, some misguided souls saw in the devastation of Katrina the judgement of God. Such storms are not the punishment meted out to the wicked: they are natural disasters that cost the health and lives of God’s beloved children. The difference between the acts of God and devastating storms: what God sends shakes us to our core so that we and our neighbors might live deeper, holier lives. It’s the difference between what gives life and what brings only death. Only our prayers and help should be visited upon anyone caught in any hurricane.

The wind rattles the windows as I write, as it has for the past two days. Rain and fog clothe even the most familiar fences and shrubs in mystery. This old familiar world is a stranger at such times – a storm gift that comes with flickering lights and downed tree limbs.

My son and I went for a storm walk Tuesday- something we’ve done for most of his life when the chance presents itself. This time, we ended up on the pier at Besse Park. High winds and high tide had the water dancing. Stoplights and street lights threw paths of moving light across the water to where we stood. Wind tugged at my clothes. Other than a couple walking their dog, we had the streets of town to ourselves. Even in the middle of this old town, on the edge of a storm no longer a hurricane, the power of wind and rain cannot be denied. Wild beyond any human control or understanding, even with Doppler radar technology.

The storm shakes everything, revealing what sits on a firm foundation and what does not. Dry branches fall, lightweight objects skitter across the yard, and plants without deep roots are upended. What is firmly rooted, what has a solid foundation, holds firm.

I’m not surprised that the Spirit comes like the wind. It shakes my complacent faith and forces me to see what is solid and what is not. It is a wild rushing, something I can’t control. The best I can do: take a walk of faith through it.

Suddenly, a sound like a mighty rushing wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. Acts 2:2

 

 

For the Living

The white colonial on the corner of Park and Main has changed hands two or three times since I moved to Wareham. With successive owners, the clapboard has been repaired and repainted. The parking area is resurfaced and apartment doors replaced. The old stone wall remains the same, but the weeds are pulled out of it regularly. It’s a nice old house, but the really amazing thing is the yard.

Grass grows in the front, and lovely plantings welcome visitors up the walk. There’s an antique bicycle with petunias growing from its basket, bright flowering vines, birdbaths and feeders. From the sidewalk I can see a child’s climbing set, vegetable beds, and an arched walkway that must look amazing from many of the windows. There’s room in the yard to play croquet or badminton; there are also places to read, cook out, or grow pumpkins. Whoever planned and created this outdoor space made a place that serves everyone living there or visiting – and it’s beautiful to boot.

I’m sure if I took a close enough look I could find flaws – weeds, bare patches, damp corners. But that’s true of everything that lives and breathes. Beauty isn’t the same thing as perfection, especially where people and animals live, work, and play. The beauty of this yard is intended for the living of life, not for observation. I say a prayer of thanks when I walk by, for the creator of this place and the Creator of all places.

Stony the Path

There’s a turn-of-the-century Cape on the corner of Gibbs and Bodfish. New people moved in a couple of years back, writing the latest chapter of the house’s biography. They’ve cleared out the scrubby bushes, repainted the trim, and laid new garden beds to the left of the driveway. It’s one of my favorite homes in town, and I enjoy seeing how it changes with the seasons – Spring crocuses, Summer hydrangea and tomatoes, Autumn pumpkins and trick-or-treat candy, Winter wreath and twinkling lights. But today, something I’d never seen before lay before me: a stone walkway connecting the front steps to the sidewalk.

The stones in the path are old, irregular in shape, varied in color and kind. They are large, well worn, and have been submerged in grass for at least as long as I’ve been living here. Someone stripped away the grass and dirt to reveal what was hidden underneath – an old path that was lost has been reborn, restoring a way for neighbors to reach the house and owners to visit neighbors.

I wonder how the owners found it. Did they see a stone or two in the grass and realize they were visible parts of a much larger but hidden design? Did they have old photos of the house that showed the walkway? Short of knocking on the door and asking, I’ll never know. I do know that it took a lot of work to restore that walkway, and an appreciation of the work that went in to laying it in the first place.

I’m writing curriculum this week for a Sunday morning high school class, delving into sacred stories, creeds, and prayers. Seeing that beautiful, old walkway rediscovered and restored gave me a new way of seeing my own work. The history, theology, prayer practices, and stories of faith provide a solid path from our faith home to the faith homes of our neighbors. It’s an ancient road, and I had no hand in its creation. But it is my privilege to do my part to uncover it, clearing the path that connects neighbor to neighbor.

For more in this series, check out “Retracing My Steps.”